Tip O'Neill, the powerful Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1977 to 1987, put foreign policy into perspective in a single sentence: 'All politics is local politics!'
We in India had a taste of that a few months ago, when Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Left Front came together to threaten the United Progressive Alliance over relations with the United States. The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh went so far as to threaten the survival of the Manmohan Singh ministry if the Indian government voted with the Americans to censure Iran's nuclear program. Many people reached the conclusion -- justifiably so in my opinion -- that this was little more than a cynical ploy to woo Muslim voters. But the Samajwadi Party boss probably has more in common with American politicians than he realises...
The India Caucus in the US House of Representatives numbers slightly over 180 members of the 435-strong chamber. The Friends of India group in the US Senate has 35 members, just over a third of the Upper House. Under the circumstances, one might have thought that the nuclear treaty negotiated between the Bush administration and the Manmohan Singh ministry would find it easy to win the approval of the US Congress. So why is it that at least 10 of the 18 legislators who moved a motion against the deal were members of the India Caucus?
An American friend put it very succinctly: "Take a look at the demographic break-up of Westchester County." Perceiving my puzzlement, he pointed out that Westchester, on the outskirts of New York City, is home to some of the wealthiest and most influential Americans in the land, including Senator Hillary Clinton, who happens to be co-chairman of the Friends of India. She has also been very quiet about the deal, lukewarm at best. My friend believes she is being forced to keep quiet thanks to a group that is even larger -- and far better organised and more influential -- than the India Caucus or the Friends of India, namely the Jewish lobby.
Senator Clinton faces re-election in November. While she is almost sure to be returned to the Senate, there is no point in upsetting the Jewish lobby. And the number of Jews in Westchester has been climbing rapidly, by 40 per cent or more since the 1990s. In New York City itself the Jews are now the single largest bloc of white voters, if only because most other whites simply do not vote (as opposed to, say, African-Americans or Hispanics).
In other words, they wield influence out of all proportion to their actual numbers. But why is the Jewish lobby thwarting the nuclear agreement?
In other times and on other issues, the Jewish Americans have always approved of better relations with India. As one New York-based Jew put it very bluntly, "When I look eastward from Israel I cannot see another democracy between us and the Pacific Ocean." In the United States itself, Jews and Indians share a common passion for education, for making money through the services sector, and for conservative family values. But just now everything else comes second to the existential threat that Iran poses to Israel.
The Jewish republic, for all its technical and military might, is always conscious of being a nation under siege. The Jews in Israel number barely 5.32 million. (Just to put that into perspective, that is under half the population of Delhi, Mumbai, or Kolkata.) They are dwarfed by the hostile Arab nations that surround Israel. Only a combination of Israeli valour born of desperation and American money has kept the country alive since it was created in 1948.
Egypt, for instance, fought -- and lost -- three wars with Israel, before deciding that it was better to accept several billion dollars in American aid rather than keep fighting. But that fragile peace is threatened by Iran.
The concept of 'martyrdom' has been so interwoven with the Iranian consciousness that talk of war is simply not as frightening as it is to, say, Egypt or Jordan. The rise in oil prices has given Iran the resources to write off the threat of an economic blockade. And nuclear technology -- almost certainly sold by Pakistan's Dr A Q Khan -- has given teeth to its threat to 'wipe Israel off the map.' (This encouragement was offered by the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.)
Larger, more well-established nations might treat such threats as empty rhetoric. Israel is far too small and too vulnerable to take it as anything but a serious attempt to destroy the country. It is, therefore, urging its ally, the United States, to do everything in its power to destroy Iran's nuclear programme.
This was the situation on the ground when President Bush signed the nuclear treaty with India. But it was evident -- or should have been -- that India would be forced to choose, with both the United States and Iran on a collision course. If it comes to a crunch, would Delhi prefer a nuclear treaty with the United States or a gas pipeline from Iraq? (Even the Russians, please remember, did not deliver uranium for power generation until after the Americans signed a deal with India.)
Israel is trying to weaken Iran as much as it can economically before a war of words becomes a war of weapons. Isolating Iran on the issue of the gas pipeline to India is part of the wider strategy. The United States can dictate policy to a client-State like Pakistan, but handling India is tougher. (Although rumours were swirling around Delhi at the time of the last Cabinet shuffle that Mani Shankar Aiyer had been kicked out of the petroleum ministry because the Americans thought he was going overboard in pressing for the gas pipeline from Iran.)
American politicians may not understand all the finer nuances of international relations but they understand their own voters quite as well as Mulayam Singh Yadav understands his. The Jews account for more votes -- and are far better organised -- than Indians in the United States. Elections are due in just over seven months. If the Jewish lobby wants to put pressure on India to be a little less friendly with Iran, then American Representatives and Senators will oblige. But the Jewish lobby will happily reverse itself if India and Israel come closer together, since there is no underlying fear of India.
The mood in Washington seemed to be that the American Senate might still, on balance, give its nod to the nuclear pact with India. But nobody was willing to say how long the process might take. Letting foreign policy play second fiddle to domestic politics may not be the best way to conduct diplomacy. But the compulsions of vote-seeking should be familiar to all of us in India. After all, how many politicians ventured to criticise Mulayam Singh Yadav when he made a play for Muslim votes over the Iran issue?